Pilgrimage: Hindu Pilgrimage

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Over the millennia, Hindus have developed an enormous number of pilgrimage places, pilgrimage-related practices, and texts extolling the virtues of, and benefits to be gained by, pilgrimages to powerful places and persons. Some of the more prominent themes that emerge in Hindu pilgrimage are the importance of water, the effects of powerful persons on particular places, the centrality of purity and asceticism, the association of pilgrimage with death, and the growing popularity and commercialization of pilgrimage as it becomes associated with tourism.

In Sanskrit and related languages, the central term for pilgrimage place is tīrtha, a crossing place or a ford where one leaves the mundane world and crosses over into a more powerful or spiritual location. The term already points to the centrality of water, rivers, and bathing in Hinduism. It is possible that this centrality was already present in the ancient Indus Valley Civilization, in which bathing seems to have been of central ritual importance. The Indus River itself is highly praised in the Vedas (where it is called the Sindhu), as are seven other "mother-rivers," originally located in Punjab in the northwest of India. The practice of Hindu pilgrimage always involves bathing, so that the pilgrim is purified before entering the sacred place or approaching the divinities there. From ancient times until the present, rivers have been prominent pilgrimage places, along with the numerous temples and other religious places along their banks.

The great Hindu epics Rāmāyaa and Mahābhārata already mention the practice of pilgrimage, and many of the places visited by their protagonists subsequently became important pilgrimage places. In the Tīrthayātrāparvan (the episode relating to the pilgrimage to the tīrthas ) of the Mahābhārata, numerous sites throughout the subcontinent are mentioned that have continued to be prominent pilgrimage places to the present day: rivers like the Ganges, the Godāvarī, and the Narmadā; as well as places such as Badrināth, Gayā, Pukara, and Prayāga.

There is no comparable listing of pilgrimage places in Vālmīki's Rāmāyaa ; however, many of the places visited by Rāma and his entourage in this epic have subsequently become important places of pilgrimage for Hindus, such as Ayodhyā, the city of Rāma's birth; Citraku, where he paused with Sītā on his journey; and Rāmeśvaram, in the far South, where he allegedly worshiped Śiva before crossing to Rāvaa's island of Lakā.

The Hindu Purāas, written roughly between the fourth and the eleventh centuries ce, have preserved a large number of names of pilgrimage places, along with a system classifying them into "divine" (daiva ), "demonic" (āsura ), "sage" (āra ), and "human" (mānua ) sites. The Purāas also contain extensive māhātmya s, passages extolling the virtues of particular pilgrimage places and the benefits to be obtained by pilgrimage to them. This māhātmya literature continues to be produced today, by those interested in promoting the fame and virtue of particular sites.

Later sources like the Ktyakalpataru of Bhaa Lakmīdhara (early twelfth century) and the Trihalīsetu of Bhaa Nārāyaa (mid-sixteenth century) rework the Purāic material and develop detailed rules and regulations for the behavior of pilgrims. It has been suggested that such literature was developed in reaction to the appearance of conquering Islamic armies in the subcontinent, as Hindus sought to codify and systematize their own practices. Both works stress that one of the virtues of pilgrimage is that it is accessible to all. Whereas Vedic sacrifice requires great wealth, the merit of pilgrimage is available to everyone, including the poor. Lakmīdhara says that even the lowest-caste caāla can obtain the fruits of pilgrimage. Both works emphasize the importance of purity and an ascetic lifestyle during pilgrimage, in order to obtain its fruits. Practices such as bathing, fasting, and shaving are recommended, and Lakmīdhara says that it is these practices, as much as the place itself, that bring benefit, arguing that the best of all tīrthas is a pure heart.

Both works stress the connection of tīrthas with death and the ancestors, and they give instructions on how to perform special rituals for throwing the bones of deceased persons into sacred rivers. Important Hindu rituals such as pia-dāna (feeding the ancestors), tarpaa (offering water to them), and Śrāddha (regular worship of them) are enjoined at tīrtha s. More than one-third of the Trihalīsetu is devoted to such death-associated rituals. In addition, Lakmīdhara recommends living at a tīrtha until one dies, so that its special power will help the pilgrim to achieve a better birth. Elsewhere in the dharmaśastra literature, the mahāprasthāna, or "pilgrimage unto death," is allowed for those who have committed a heinous crime, or have an incurable disease. Sometimes, particular tīrthas are recommended as places for such religious suicide, and there are numerous historical accounts of this being practiced, by kings and others. These citations tend to confirm what has been suspected by many scholars, that Hindu pilgrimage in the medieval period was in many cases positively valued as a way for sick and infirm people to die with dignity.

Many of these ideas and practices are very much alive today. In general, Hindu pilgrims refrain from sex, as well as from the consumption of meat, fish, liquor, and other impure substances during their journeys. Numerous pilgrimages throughout the subcontintent are strongly associated with the assumption of a "temporarily ascetic" lifestyle, for example the pilgrimage to Sabari Mallai in Kerala in South India. Men participating in this pilgrimage temporarily become "renouncers" for a period ranging from forty-five to sixty days, adding the energy of their asceticism to the power of the sacred place. Similar practices are followed by the so-called kāvarīwālās, pilgrims who carry Ganges water from Hardwār in North India back to their local Śiva shrines in time to offer it on the annual festival of Śivarātrī, observing strict asceticism on their journey.

Death- and ancestor-related rituals also remain important in contemporary Hindu pilgrimage. Some of the most famous and well-attended tīrthas, such as Kāśī (Banaras) and Gayā, are strongly associated with the performance of these rituals. For those lacking the time or opportunity for such a long pilgrimage, local and regional tīrthas serve as places for the performance of such rituals. People still come to Banaras for "Kāśīmok(a)"the liberation obtained by dying therewhile the immersion of the bones of the dead remains a common practice.

Certain particularly famous tīrthas became important in the political and economic history of India. Kauilya, in his Arthaśāstra (written at the beginning of the common era), had already advised kings that they should send spies to pilgrimage places in order to ascertain the mood of the populace and to be on the lookout for enemies of the state. Pilgrims were not traditionally subject to taxation, but the commercial activities that grew up around large pilgrimage centers attracted the attention of rulers. In later times certain pilgrimage places became objects of contention amongst various rulers and religious orders, for commercial reasons as well as for the prestige that accrued to those who controlled them. Caitanya (14861533), Guru Nānak (14691539; the founder of Sikhism), and many other sect-founders are said in their hagiographies to have performed extensive pilgrimages throughout South Asia, in the course of which they converted the adherents of rival sects to their cause.

One of the oldest and best-known Hindu tīrthas is the city of Kāśī (Benaras), which has pride of place in Lakmīdhara's book. By the twelfth century it had become the premier pilgrimage place in India. Lying on an unusual north-turning bend of the Ganges River, the entire riverfront of Kāśī is lined with ghās, stone steps that lead pilgrims from the city's lanes to the edge of the river to bathe. Images of these ghās have become almost synonymous with India and Hinduism in the tourist literature. Originally a sacred forest, Kāśī is a large city filled with perhaps the greatest concentration of tīrthas anywhere in India. It has always been regarded as Śiva's city, and it is believed that those who die there obtain moka when Śiva whispers a liberating mantra into their ear.

In addition to Kāśī, there are two other great ketras or "pilgrimage fields" located in north India: Gayā and Prayāga. Gayā is above all a pit-tīrtha, a pilgrimage place where the ancestors are worshiped. The Śrāddha ritual mentioned above is believed to have special merit when performed in this place, and even today hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gather there every year during the pit-paka, the time of year especially set aside for this practice, in order to perform the Śrāddha and related rituals.

The third great pilgrimage field of North India is Prayāga, even more ancient than Kāśī. It is located at the sagama (confluence) of the two sacred riversthe Ganges and the Yamunāalong with an invisible third river, the Sarasvatī. At Prayaga, one is not only allowed, but in fact, enjoined to commit religious suicide by drowning, and there are historical records of such suicides there by ancient Hindu kings. Prayāga is the site of the Kumbha Melā, the largest religious gathering in the world, as well as a pilgrimage fair that occurs there once every twelve years.

There are many other systems of pilgrimage places in India. The most encompassing of these are the "four dhāms," four pilgrimage places at the corners of kite-shaped India. Badrināth in the central Himalayas of North India, sacred to Viu, was already known to the redactors of the Mahābhārata; Jagganāth to the East in Orissa is, like Badrināth, sacred to Viu and was of great importance during the late medieval period in India as a source of authoritative religious practice and doctrine. Rāmeśvaram in the South, the only Śaiva temple of the four dhāms, is where Rāma is believed to have worshiped Śiva before crossing to Rāvaa's fortress city of Lakā; and Ka's temple-city of Dvārakā in the West. It is widely believed that the great philosopher Śakarācārya (c. eighthninth centuries) made a circumambulatory pilgrimage of the subcontinent and established these four shrines, though there is no reliable historical evidence of this.

Another well-known system of pilgrimage places is the so-called Saptapurī, or "seven cities" (also known as the saptamahātīrtha or seven great pilgrimage places), where liberation may be obtained. These include Dvāraka in Gujarat (already mentioned as one of the four dhām); Ayodhyā, the birthplace of Rāma; Mathurā, where Ka spent much of his life; Kāśī (mentioned below); Ujjain (associated with the Mahākala jyotirliga mentioned below); and Haridvār, on the Ganges at the foot of the Himalaya. Some say that Kāñcīpuram in the South is the seventh city, others say it is Prayāga in the north. Other sectarian pilgrimage systems include the twelve jyotirliga or "ligas of light" sacred to Śiva. According to the Śivapurāa, these are: Somanātha in Saurāa, Mallikārjuna on Śrīsaila hill, Mahākala in Ujjayinī, Parameśvara in Oµkāraketra (an island in the Narmadā river), Kedāra in the Himalayas, Bhīmaśakara at the source of the Godāvarī River, Viśveśvara in Kāśī, Tryambakeśvara on the Godāvarī River near Nāsik (another site of the periodic Kumbha Melā), Vaidyanātha in Citābhūmī, Nāgeśa in Dārukāvana, Rāmeśvara (mentioned above as one of the four dhām), and Gheśa (near present-day Daulatābād).

The system of Śaktipīhas, or seats of power sacred to the goddess, is said to have been created after the goddess Satī immolated herself on the sacrificial fire of her father Daka. Crazed with grief, Śiva picked up her corpse and began performing his world-destroying dance, the ānanda-āava, or dance of bliss. Viu, understanding that the entire world was threatened by Śiva's dance, cut Satī's body into pieces with his discus, and the places where they fell became the Śaktipīhas. Currently, the most powerful of these is believed to be Kāmarūpa in Assam, where the goddess's vulva fell to earth.

The sectarian aspect of pilgrimage systems is, in any case, not terribly relevant for contemporary Hindu pilgrimage. Hindus have in the past been famous for their tolerance. Sectarian differences among Hindus are not very important, and most Hindu pilgrims readily visit the shrines of a variety of gods. This kind of openness extends to the pilgrimage places of different religions as well. Kataragama in Sri Lanka, for example, is visited by Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims; the tomb of the Muslim saint Niām al-Dīn Awliyā' (AH 636725 /12381325 ce) in Delhi is regularly visited by Sikhs and Hindus; and the Sikh pilgrimage place of Amritsar attracts numerous pilgrims from other religions, including Hinduism.

In addition to the all-India level of pilgrimage places and systems discussed above, each region within the subcontinent has its own important pilgrimage places. A complete list of such places would be very long; however, some of the more notable shrines in India that have not been mentioned above include the following: the goddess temple of Jwālāmukhi, near Kāgaā in Himachal Pradesh; Kuruketra, near Ambālā in Punjab, thought to be the site of the great battle in which the Mahābhārata culminated; Mount Kailāsa in Tibet, thought of as the home of Lord Śiva; Amarnāth in Kashmir, a liga of ice that is the goal of a very large annual pilgrimage; Amarakaaka in Madhya Pradesh on the banks of the Narmadā River; Nāthadvāra, near Udaipur, associated with Ka; Somanātha in Gujarat, destroyed by Mamūd in 1026 and now an important shrine for Hindu nationalists; Nāsik in Maharashtra, where one of the periodic Kumbha Melās is held; Pāndharpur, associated with Vihobā, the "Maharashtrian Viu"; the goddess Kālī's temple of Kālīghā in Kolkatta, West Bengal; the temple of Śgerī in Karnataka, one of the four headquarters of the Daśanāmī order of Śaiva monks believed to have been founded by Śakarācārya; Uipi, also in Karnataka, birthplace of the dualist philosopher Madhvācārya; and in Tamil Nadu, the city of Madurai with its temple of the "fish-eyed" goddess Mīnākī, the famous Śaiva pilgrimage place Cidambaram, and the city of Kāñcīpuram. The state of Andhra Pradesh includes the Vaiava temple of Tirupati, quite possibly the wealthiest shrine in India.

Pilgrimage activity is often associated with certain dates or times of the year. Gayā is visited especially during the pit-paka, the annual half-month period that is reserved for ancestor rituals. The sanctity of the four sites at which the Kumbha Melās are held on a rotating basis is also connected to particular astrologically determined times. In many places throughout the subcontinent, it is believed that a conjunction of heavenly bodies releases a kind of power that can in turn be tapped or absorbed by pilgrims at sacred places for a limited time. Therefore, throughout India, one finds pilgrimage fairs (melās) that draw huge crowds of pilgrims, but only for a limited time.

The motivations for pilgrimage are often rather mundane: success in business or studies; curing of sickness; and birth of children (especially sons). These desired objects are called fruits (Skt., phala ). Typically, one takes a vow, promising that if the desired fruit is obtained, one will perform a pilgrimage; or one performs a pilgrimage in the hope that the desired fruit will be obtained. The power of the sacred place, along with the energy that is generated by the ascetic practices associated with pilgrimage and the grace of the god for whom the pilgrimage is performed, are believed to result in the attainment of the desired object. Such a "this-worldly" orientation has been an object of criticism for Hindu theologians and reformers for centuries. For example, the poet-saint Kabīr lamented the many pilgrims who wander the earth lost and parched, not realizing that the true Ganges lies within.

Hindus also engage in many kinds of practices that are quite similar to pilgrimage. For example, Hindus often journey to have the darśan (auspicious sight) of a holy person. This may be done on the occasion of a special ritual, or during a melā or other festival. Such journeys are not called pilgrimages (tīrtha-yātrā), but the similarity of holy place and holy person is implicitly recognized by the fact that a holy person is often called a tīrtha.

The ritual processions that occur throughout South Asia are also pilgrimage-like activities. Many pilgrimage temples are associated with annual festivals where the god or goddess emerges from his or her temple and circumambulates the town or visits another deity. Ritual processions in which one deity visits another are common in the Himalayas, and in these processions the deity is normally accompanied by priests and pilgrims who tend the deity during the procession and worship him regularly.

Sādhus, or holy men, are often seen wandering in India, and they are particularly prevalent at pilgrimage places, so that one easily thinks of them as "perpetual pilgrims." However, their own understandings of these journeys are rather different. They may think of themselves variously as gods' soldiers, as novices undergoing initiation, as members of a travelling monastery, or as ascetics who are roaming for pleasure or merely wandering aimlessly.

With the rapid growth of tourism and transport in the past few decades, pilgrimage activity in India is exploding. It is now quite common to combine religious pilgrimage with tourism, and this occurs at all economic levels, from the inexpensive bus tours organized for a clientele of peasant or lower-middle-class Hindus to the five-star pilgrimage tours organized for overseas Hindus and increasingly promoted by the government of India. The video bus coach, in which pilgrims en route to a tīirtha sthān watch Bollywood movies rather than singing religious hymns, has existed for some time. Other new forms of pilgrimage include "web pilgrimages," where one may have darśan (sight) of the deity online, and even order some prasād, or blessed food, from the temple.

See Also

Banaras; Ganges River; Kumbha Melā; Kuruketra; Rivers; Sarasvatī; Vndāvana; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Hindu Devotional Life.


The best general introduction to the concept of tīrtha is still Diana Eck's "India's Tīrthas : 'Crossings' in Sacred Geography," History of Religions 20 (4): 323344. Excellent sources on the medieval classification of tīrthas, their particular qualities, and the rules and practices associated with them can be found in the Ktyakalpataru of Bhaa Lakmīdhara (Gaekwad's Oriental Series, Vol. XCVIII, Baroda, India, 1942) and the Tristhalīsetu of Bhaa Nārāyaa (translated with commentary by Richard Salomon as The Bridge to the Three Holy Cities (Delhi, India, 1985). Further information on the history of Hindu pilgrimage can be found in P. V. Kane's History of Dharmaśastra (in five volumes, Pune, India, 19301962).

The most comprehensive modern listing of pilgrimage places is found in a special issue of Kalyāa 31, no. 1 (1957), titled Tīrthāk. The best source for the Śaktipīhas is still D. C. Sircar's "The Śakta Pīhas," Jounal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal Letters 14 (1948): 1108 (republished Delhi, India, 1973). Other contemporary lists of pilgrimage places with commentary include S. M. Bhardwaj's Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India: A Study in Cultural Geography (Berkeley, Calif., 1973), which maps the pilgrimage places mentioned in the Mahābhārata ; Agehananda Bharati's "Pilgrimage in Indian Tradition," History of Religions 3 (Summer, 1963): 135167 and his "Pilgrimage Sites and Indian Civilization," in Joseph W. Elder, ed., Chapters in Indian Civilization (Dubuque, Iowa, 1970). Discussions of "pilgrimage unto death" include von Stietencron's "Suicide as a Religious Institution," Bhāratīya Vidyā XXVII (1969) and William Sax's "Pilgrimage Unto Death," in To Strive and Not to Yield: Essays in Honour of Colin Brown, edited by Jim Veitch (Wellington, New Zealand, 1992). One of the most remarkable studies of an important pilgrimage center is to be found in Anncharlott Eschmann, et al., The Cult of Jagganath and the Regional Tradition of Orissa (New Delhi, India, 1978).

Anthropological accounts of pilgrimage include Ann Gold's Fruitful Journeys: The Ways of Rajasthani Pilgrims (Berkeley, Calif., 1988), E. Valentine Daniel's "Equilibrium Regained," chapter five of his Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way (Berkeley, Calif., 1984); David Haberman's Journey Through the Twelve Forests: An Encounter with Krishna (New York, 1994); Alan Morinis's Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition (Delhi 1984), and William S. Sax's Mountain Goddess: Gender and Politics in a Himalayan Pilgrimage (New York, 1991).

William S. Sax (2005)